Winning and a changing culture in the NBA

by Isaac Javier

“Man.. I don’t know what to say, I’m a champion! Two time! Two rings! That shit stank don’t it?!” LeBron James

Everyone wants to win. And in a competitive sporting environment, there is only ever one true goal in participating and that is to be the best. And what else solidifies an NBA career but one of these. Even before an NBA career, one dreams of simply making it to the NBA. From dunking on our backyard hoops, rocking the jersey’s, to even simulating our own careers on PlayStation, the summum bonum of every hoopshead in the world is that fated night the commissioner calls your name to the stage, walking up there and shaking his hand, and then putting on your new team’s snapback – the culmination of thousands of hours in the gym, and hundreds of hours of lost sleep, even with the massive uncertainty of making it to the league. That’s the allure of the NBA lifestyle – the money and the notoriety that comes with waking up every day and realising that you’re getting paid millions of dollars to play basketball.

To match Interview NBA/STERN
LeBron James shakes hands with then-commissioner David Stern, fulfilling his NBA dream.

But with the frivolous lifestyle that comes with making it, does anyone care about winning anymore? Are NBA players nowadays just in it for the lifestyle, content with the careless notion that they might not ever win a ring? It certainly seems so. Players heedlessly play out their careers without really wanting a championship until it’s too late. Obviously, they actually do care about winning games because no one plays to lose (and you wouldn’t make it to the NBA anyway if you haven’t done any sort of winning in your playing career prior to the Association stint).

Everyone wants that all-elusive diamond and gold encrusted paraphernalia on their ring finger. To be etched in NBA folklore as a champion as the best of the rest within in a season’s worth of revolution. But it is more than arguable that in today’s NBA players, their actions and habits does not reflect that. In a nutshell, a very small collective of NBA players are clearly playing to win and by “playing to win”, it means going for the championship, year in and year out.

The spirit of hard nosed competition and doing whatever it takes to win is virtually gone. No one talks about winning championships anymore as the scale of even the prospect of winning one is often too daunting for the regular NBAer whose just happy to be in the league.


Isiah Thomas, an all-time great and one of the fiercest competitors in NBA history, said it best in an Open Court segment “How many guys right now are playing for the championship ring?”  A two time NBA champion with one Finals MVP to boot, Isiah Thomas is an embodiment of a player playing to win. And this obsession with winning and neglect for essentially everything and everyone outside the Detroit Pistons macrocosm caused him to be one of the most hated players in the NBA – along with the fact that he was the leader of the infamous Detroit Bad Boys, a team that was known for behaviour like this, while carrying the ethos of “domination by intimidation” during their reign as the supervillains of the NBA.

While establishing himself as a bona fide superstar in the league, the baggage he carried as a member of the rough Detroit Pistons team alienated him from the rest of the league. This led to his omission from the 1992 USA Dream Team on the grounds of a probable (certain) rift in the team’s chemistry. It was documented that Michael Jordan himself asked for Isiah to be left out of the team due to the sheer hatred and discontent he had with the Pistons. It was that severe that Jordan would opt out of the United States team if Isiah was in the roster (Joe Dumars, a finals MVP and the closest individual rival Michael Jordan had in his time, was also left out of the team). All this happened because Isiah’s detached approach to winning – he didn’t care about making friends with the rest of the NBA, his reputation, and what they had to do – all he and the Pistons stood for was winning and they took no prisoners in doing so. This era in basketball also exemplified winning with pride. Every team had their leader – Jordan’s Bulls, Isiah’s Pistons, Magic’s Lakers, Celtic’s Bird and so on – who carried the load and was anointed to bring the franchise to the promised land.

Bad guys win once (or twice) in a while.

There is no denying that LeBron James is one of the most talented individuals in NBA history, but he will also always be known as one of its most controversial winners. When he basically gave up on the Cavaliers and chose to go to the Heat, it not only undoubtedly stained his legacy, but it reasonably downplayed the championships he eventually won. Insignificant of the fact that he had a subpar supporting cast (to say the least) in Cleveland, the fact will always linger that he gave up on his home town and the team that drafted him to form a “superteam” with two other superstars on his way to a Larry O’Brien trophy. If we look at other winners in this generation – Kobe, Dirk, Duncan, and Wade – they managed to win theirs through patience, belief, and an unrelenting hunger. Let alone, if we look at the players of the past era like Jordan, Isiah, Magic, Bird, Hakeem and even guys who didn’t win a championship like Barkley,Stockton, and ‘Nique (the Greek league and Eurobasket championships doesn’t count, sorry)  – they would never compromise their pride and ego to win a championship. There mere though of “teaming up” with another superstar would have been against everything the competitive culture of the 90s stood for.

It’s a culture of refusing to join a bandwagon. They would rather lose fighting and go out with their self-respect and dignity intact rather than winning by going “buddy-buddy”, as Chris Webber would say.

The decision

There is little-to-no trace of this in the NBA as we speak – the extreme and distinct bravado and will that backed up the innate desire to win that’s present in every basketball player. It also represents a changing attitude in the current NBA – everyone is everyone’s friend, to some degree. Any and all of the relevant “beef” in the NBA are hosted in the upper echelon of the league (Clippers vs Warriors, Draymond Green vs Hassan Whiteside, Mark Cuban vs everyone, and Matt Barnes vs Derek Fisher, HA!) which is indicative of one evident perception: no one cares about the bottom dwellers of the NBA.

Unless, of course, you’re interested in watching the next generation of stars progressing and fulfilling their potential, but their games are usually unbearable to watch because they’re bad basketball teams. Lets just say that no sane basketball enthusiast would watch the Suns instead of the Warriors(or Spurs, or the Cavs, or the Clippers, or Raptors, or whichever team that’s not Suns, basically). It’s undoubtedly an exhibition of the lack of quality and competitiveness within the league.

The continuing trend of settling on taking losses not only lies within the players but, also transcends to the organisations, through the blatant practice of “tanking”. To illustrate, tanking is when the management sets its team up to lose games in order to have a higher chance of getting a top pick in the next draft. It’s an obvious answer to why there is no shred of competitiveness with lower-tier teams. It is also unfavourable for the fans of the team. There’s hard-working people paying their money to watch the games and buy the merchandise, only to watch the team they love lose every other night. Charles Barkley recently commented on the current Suns “They’ve got the best fans in the world and they deserve better than what they’re getting right now”, and the same can be said with every team that’s tanking. Losing is understandable as not every team can be good, but watching a bunch of guys that are meant to play bad and lose is just hard to watch. This is the metaphorical equivalent of the franchise’s management taking a giant shit on the fan’s faces by gambling with the team’s future.


As an individual basketball player, there’s always that bitter taste when you lose to a team, knowing that you can beat every individual on the other team in a game of one on one. But you did lose the game, and any hypothetical games of one on one’s are irrelevant. Jerry West – The Logo, Mr. Clutch – lost eight of his nine finals appearances. He averaged 29 points in his playoff career, including averaging 40 points in an 11 game run in the 1966 playoffs.He was just as good when he won one championship to when he won none. He will also be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. West’s fabled career raises the conclusion that wins and loses does not reveal everything about a player, rather, losing reveals a person just as much as winning.

In the annals of NBA history, all the winners did so by conquering their own unique obstacles. Jordan and the Bulls came through to establish their dynasty after the grueling beatings they’ve took from the Pistons and their other Eastern Conference foes. Magic and Bird went through unfathomable lengths to get the best out of each other in the greatest rivalry in NBA history. Russell’s Celtics, did it through sheer domination. The Detroit “Bad Boys” did it their way – by hook or by crook. Tim Duncan and the Spurs understatedly dominated the decade with five championships by being one of the classiest and most consistent franchises in all of sports. I could go on. Its how you win that’s more indicative of a player and a team’s greatness.



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